Geese ravaging fields after refuge halts planting

Managing Editor

SMYRNA, Del. — For years, farmers around the Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge expected to have problems with geese on their farms starting the end of February and early March.
By that time of year, the geese had finished off what food plots and cover crops were planted for them in the refuge and began to look elsewhere, usually settling on the first green patch of ground they found.
But now that the refuge has stopped planting crops on its ground, farmers have been spending time and money months earlier chasing geese off their fields of wheat and other cover crops.
“You might say the refuge has moved a mile west,” Mark Wilson, whose family’s Legacy Farms tills thousands of acres around the refuge, said of the 20,000- to 40,000-bird flocks that have been causing crop damage.
“My point is they’re not (in the refuge) anymore. They’re off the Hook and that’s what it was made for.”
According the refuge’s website, Bombay Hook was established in 1937 linking refuges that extend from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and acting as a breeding ground for migratory birds and other waterfowl.
“The value and importance of Bombay Hook for the protection and conservation of waterfowl has increased greatly over the years, primarily due to the loss of extensive surrounding marshland to urban and industrial development,” the website said.
In one field the Wilsons till — 350 acres planted in rye — the birds have eaten just about everything, munching the plants down their crown at ground level.
“You cannot find a spot where a goose hasn’t set its foot,” Mark said.
On a recent drive through the 16,000-acre refuge, Mark and brother Denny pointed out several fields that were once in production agriculture, now growing brush and saplings from two to 12 feet tall. The Wilsons said they and farmer neighbors fear that if the fields continue to go unformed, the refuge will be less desirable for birds to go.
“Nature is going to take it back and a goose isn’t going to go there,” Denny said.
“Migratory birds are going to sit on open fields,” Mark added. “You ever see a goose land in the woods?”
According to Oscar Reed, deputy manager at the refuge, ag crop and food plot planting stopped after the 2009 crop year.
Cover crops sowed at the end of 2009 were the last planted crops.
“We did not farm this year,” Reed said, leaving fallow about 800 acres in the refuge that had previously been leased to farmers.
He said this year the refuge mowed upland fields for geese to browse in and allowed any volunteer wheat to continue to grow.
Reed said the decision to cease planting was due to a lawsuit filed against the refuge last year.
On March 1, 2010, the lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Delaware by the Widener Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic against the refuge to prevent the planting of genetically modified crops on refuge-owned land. The suit was brought by the Delaware Audubon Society, the Center for Food Safety and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Reed said he couldn’t comment on issues pertaining to the pending lawsuit.
The Bombay Hook suit is the second of its kind brought in Delaware. In 2009, the same groups filed and won a lawsuit against Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge when a federal judge found the planting of genetically modified crops “poses significant environmental risks.”
To minimize geese damage on their crops, the Wilsons said they’ve had to dedicate someone full-time to drive around and scare the geese off their fields. Mark said they try to get someone to each field at least three times a day to keep the birds in the air in hopes of splitting the flocks up into smaller groups.
He said farmers have been calling one another once they see where the geese are headed, “just to let them know they’re heading there.”
“They’re going to eat somebody’s wheat,” Mark said. “We’re just try to keep them off ours and notify our neighbor.”
He said they spend about $200 to $300 a day in fuel and manpower chasing the geese.
The Wilsons said if the no planting policy continues at the refuge, deer damage to corn and soybean crops will increase as more deer venture out of the refuge in search of food.